Mistakes I Made Part V: Pantsing


Yes, I saved the big one till last. After months of bewailing all the things I did wrong in my quest for publication, I’m winding up in a blaze of controversial glory. I was a teenaged pantser. Now I’m not and I’m more successful as a result. All usual MW claims about this being subjective and there being lots of ways to publication aside, I’m convinced that pantsing slowed me down big time and made for inferior work.

Couple of clarifications: “Pantsing,” for those who don’t know, is “writing by the seat of your pants,” in other words, not “plotting” or outlining your work before you start to write. In real terms, of course,–and this is where my bold start has to be nuanced a bit—the implied binary here is an over simplification. We should think of the difference between pantsing and plotting as an infinite set of grey shades moving toward black at one end, white at the other. Few people truly inhabit one end of the spectrum alone, so even as I reject my pantsing origins I should say that what that really means is that I’ve shifted steadily towards the plotting end, not that I’ve gone from one extreme to the other.

The problem with the extremist positions is fairly self evident. On the one hand, the extremist plotter figures out every micro detail of his/her book without writing a word, thereby depriving the process of any organic evolution, missing out on those moments where a new idea emerges through the telling of the story, or where characters take on lives of their own. The hardcore plotter misses the chance for the story to shift into something better in its process of unfolding.

The opposite extreme is the pantser who starts writing with no clear idea of what the story is, what will happen or who will populate its world. The result tends to be a sprawling, meandering mess without structure or purpose and often marred by extensive digression.

Most writers inhabit some kind of middle ground, practicing a combination of the two: laying out parts of the story in note form but being unclear on the details of large sections even as they start to write. Writers who live at one end or the other have ways of fixing the problems inherent to their methods. For plotters its less of a fix than it is a gift for large scale story telling, an ability to see how the story should develop and then stick to the resultant map. This is a real skill and requires a more conscious understanding of story structure because so much has to be lain out when the book exists only as an idea. For pantsers the fix is simpler but more time consuming: editing. This is crucial. When you’ve typed “The End” on the final page of your baggy organic monster you will finally have figured out what the book is about, what its characters are like and what the core of the thing should be (if you haven’t, you have a different problem which will need a lot more work and probably someone else’s input). You can then go back into it and hack it into shape.

But here’s the problem. Most writers suck at this, and I’m including myself. When you write a book your impulse on completing your first draft is to break out the champagne. Yes, you’ll edit, but for most of us, obsessed with the idea of a finished product as we are, that edit is more likely to be a chat with the manuscript than the drag down, knock out brawl it should probably be. The fact is that we can’t see the flaws in our own work until we are either very experienced or have been able to put some real distance between us and the work, and distance usually means time.

I’m always telling my students that they should complete their assignments early (a couple of weeks, ideally, for a short paper) so that they will be able to forget about them and read them with fresh eyes before they turn them in. That way they have a better chance of seeing what any neutral observer (including me) will see: the typos, the lapses in logical thought, the misreadings etc. which they couldn’t see before because they knew what they MEANT when they wrote it and that impulse is still uppermost in their heads. What they think they did is not what is actually on paper. It takes time to be able to see this.

A case in point. A few years ago I wrote a novel and submitted it. I couldn’t sell it. Lots of possible reasons occurred to me, many of them connected to the flagging economy and the subgenre for which I was working. It didn’t seriously occur to me that the book wasn’t that good. This past summer I returned to it—a little over two years since I finished it—and was horrified by what I’d been sending out. It was aimless and self-indulgent, uncertain of its own direction, over populated and generally muddy. I took out 22,000 words in a single pass without altering the story at all.

The problem with the original was simple. I didn’t have a clear enough idea of what I was doing when I set out to write the book and it showed. Of the cutting I made in this revision, 10,000 of those words came out of the crucial first 100 pages. That’s the give away: the book just didn’t know where it was going, not clearly enough anyway. And if we know anything for sure in this business it’s that no reader will indulge you for a hundred pages if the book feels weak or uncertain of its direction, not the buyers in Barnes and Noble, not editors, not agents.

It took me nearly 3 years to be able to see what was wrong with the book, and I’ve been around the block a few times. This kind of problem just can’t happen if you plot it out more carefully. For all the pseudo-mystical criticisms of “inorganic” plotting I have yet to see real proof that a decent writer can’t plan most of what he or she is doing in advance and achieve the same or better results than the most impulse-driven pantser, while being instantly more coherent and closer to a finished product.

So why did I hold on to pantsing for so long? Because I like words. I like the sentence level stuff of story and I wanted to get to it as soon as I could, so I dived right in without knowing where I was heading. I didn’t want to do the macro nuts and bolts stuff and thought that such a mechanistic approach somehow sullied my art. Hogwash. I shifted more toward plotting, in part, because I had to, because multi-book contracts often demand a detailed outline of the next project before anyone wants to look at an actual manuscript. I still don’t especially like mapping my books out, and I am still surprised by the twists and turns my stories develop in spite of said maps, but I am confident that I get to a better, more marketable product fifty times faster this way, and I strongly recommend it.


21 comments to Mistakes I Made Part V: Pantsing

  • Great post AJ, thank you! I am a pantster, but I’ve been slowly working my way toward more outlining. After completing my first novel I realized how hard it was going to be to edit the thing and wondered how I would tackle it. I started writing short stories to hone my editing skills, but even the short stories were pants.

    I then decided to start outlining my short stories, and it worked beautifully. Even though I had outlined the short story so much happened during the writing that it still felt “organic” to me. There was still a fair amount of discovery writing in there, but in the end I felt it was my strongest short story yet.

    Now I’m trying to apply all those principles to my longer work. Again, thank you for you insights! I love this series of posts!

  • Hey AJ, your advice with the “fresh eyes” perspective is very sound. I’ve always been one (and I’m not alone, I hope!) to think that my first drafts were near perfect. It didn’t matter what I was writing, whether it was a paper for class, a short story, or an article for my blog.

    It’s taken a long time for me to realize that Hemingway was right when he said, “The first draft of anything is s***.”

    Your personal anecdote with your unsuccessful novel really helped cement the notion for me. Thanks!

  • When I first started writing, I was a plotter, and knowing myself, figured that would always be the way of it. However, sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning with a picture in my mind or a sentence that just has to be written. I sit down to write it up and a whole scene presents itself. Often, there’s a creative leap in direction associated with it, making the story better. Then, I see where it fits with the plotted aspects. Sometimes it just needs a little tweaking, or, if I can’t get it to fit, I’ll add it to my file of future inspirations.

    So, actually, I’ve gone at it from the opposite direction as you, but ended up in a similar place!

  • AJ, this is grand. We chatted a bit about this, you and I, at the Novello in Charlotte a few weeks back. You made a statment then, if I remember right, that, “We could not be more different in everything we have done.” It got a big laugh, but it was true too.

    I was always a plotter – the effect of my engineer father on my psyche. But the organic process has always there too, mostly in my characters’ backgrounds. Who they are, what their motivations are, their reactions to the plot line, are all organic and bring that delicious element of surprise.

    I often know very little about my main character when I start out: She is a mother of a teenaged daughter, is a successful freelance photographer, is divorced, and her husband was a cheat. That might be all I know when I do my plotting. Then, in the actual writing, I discover that she saw her mother die during an armed robbery, she is the victim of spousal abuse, and she has always seen herself as a victim. And that becomes the one thing she must grow through in the novel. It is the organic part. In this particular novel, that organic part changed who the Big Bad Ugly was; the ending changed totally. So I am growing more to being a pantser…

    Just as you said, >>We should think of the difference between pantsing and plotting as an infinite set of grey shades moving toward black at one end, white at the other.>> I like!

  • Alistair,
    yes, I don’t think that plotting means banishing the organic at all, and that that idea is a bit of a myth which writers can only get past through experimenting in their own work. What the plotting gives you is a skeleton. The words are still the flesh and the muscle which makes it move, and sometimes they will force the final entity into a slightly different shape. That’s not a bad thing. But the original frame helps you see what you are moving away from so you can provide alternate structure to support your new direction.

    yes, there is no substitute for revision: real, tough, hack-and-slay revision. But it’s hard, at least for me, to be that brutal to what I have just produced. I get to attached to what is there if only because it was work to generate it. Plotting helps me keep more of my first draft relevant to the finished product.

    agreed. I wrote this from the persepctive of moving in a particular direction because that was my experience (and I suspect most writers’ experience) but I do finally think I’m advocating a middle ground, albeit one closer to the plotting end.

  • Faith,
    see, I think that even your starting point about what you know about your central character is much more plotted than I was! I knew nothing about who I was writing sometimes. No idea at all. I just thought it would emerge on the page. And it did, eventually. But then I had to go back, cut a hundred pages, figure out what the story was and where it should start and all that, and so much of it just felt like wasted time (esp. since it can take me a long time after writing to figure all this stuff out).

  • This is a terrific post, A.J., and the most eloquent defense of plotting I’ve read in some time. Like EK, I have actually moved in the opposite direction, but only a little. I used to outline a lot, I think because I was insecure in my plotting, and feared that if I didn’t, my books would collapse under the weight of their own logical incoherence. And so, as I’ve grown more comfortable as a storyteller, I’ve done far less plotting than I used to. But using your continuum, I see that I am still far from a true pantser. I know a great deal about where I’m going and how I intend to get there before I start. I’ve just come to trust that organic process more than I used to.

  • Thanks for writing about this, A.J. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately.

    I *thought* I was a pantser, but recently I’ve discovered that I’m not. That’s because I viewed plotting as meaning one specific thing: having a detailed outline and everything meticulously planned. So it was very black and white to me, and I thought I could never be that strict with myself. One of the arguments I’ve often heard in favor of pantsing is that outlines suppress creativity.

    The writing conference I was at last month featured a panel by James Scott Bell on The Art of War for Writers. One of his main points was that, if we want to be published, we need to treat writing as a business. And one of the subpoints of that was that in order to do so, we need an outline. “Even just one good idea and three good scenes (and twenty scenes roughly plotted out).” I’m grossly summarizing it here, but the way he put it, we don’t need to have everything plotted out exactly. But we need to know where we’re basically going if we want to be able to move forward.

    Turns out, I’ve been doing that already, using a numbered list. It just didn’t *feel* like I had been plotting, because I thought that in order to plot, I would have to sit down and think out every single detail.

    Now I feel much more confident, because these list items have mostly become scenes to guide me while I write the story out. That’s the difference between pantsing and plotting. I’m glad I converted. 🙂

  • I think there’s a eureka moment for most authors when they finally realize where they sit comfortably on the plots-pants spectrum. After years of trying one way or another, or edging closer to one side or the other, we all eventually say, This is what works for me. Well, at least for the present! Things always change. For me, plotting is laying out the beginning, the end, and the key points in the middle. Then I start writing and let the pants side take over to get me from point A to B to C all the way to Z.

  • Yeah, I like the shades of gray description. I used to be on the extreme end of freeform/pantsing/organic writing. I typically had a place to start and a general direction in my head, a couple sketchy scenes somewhere in the middle, and an idea of how I wanted the story to end. These were all roiling around in my brainpan as I tried to write. I never finished anything. Never. Well, other than an occasional short story. Once I started writing I lost momentum and direction. I couldn’t figure out how to get the story to the conclusion. It’s only been in the past couple years, by writing screenplays, where I’ve come to realize that I’m far better at plotting out first. A 90-120 page screenplay was far easier to finish if I had the skeleton of the synopsis first to go by. I tried it with the WIP and got it finished. I got it finished within months. Course, now I’m going through revisions, which has taken longer than writing the first draft.

    Thing is, it still felt very organic as well. Just because I write something like–“They are forced to run and are assailed every step of the way through the Darkenwood by the enemy.”–I still have to create the scene. One sentence does not a scene make. A 5 page synopsis still has to be expanded to fill a couple hundred pages. And even when I had the synopsis/outline to go by, there were still places where something had to be added that I didn’t plan on. There’s actually a couple scenes in the WIP that weren’t in the outline at all. There’s even one place where I moved a plotted scene because after writing the manuscript I realized that it made more sense somewhere else. But in all instances, the outline was there to help me get the story back on track and to show me how to mesh the organic scene with the next plotted scene.

    And at this point, my train of thought has derailed…durn lack of sleep. Guess I shoulda set up an outline for this reply before I started…

  • AJ> Great post. And I tell my students the same thing. None of them listen. I didn’t listen when I was their age either. *sighs*

    I’m a plotter. I always wanted to be a pantser because I thought it sounded more cool, meant I was more creative, and it matched with the “myth” of the writer that I’d swallowed whole and without critique when I was younger. You know, the myth that says that all great writers write a perfect first draft the first time out? That’s what a “good writer” is? Yeah, that one. *rolls eyes*

    The first piece we wrote (and it was really my first foray into real writing) was SO pantsed. I mean, we’d get to the end of a scene and look at each other and say “so, what happens next?” But it was also about learning to write. There was no way what we wrote was going to see publication. I didn’t know how to write fiction at all. But gosh darn it, it was so much fun! About halfway through we figured we needed an ending, decided on one, and started writing to it.

    Fast forward a number of years later (the exact number I won’t mention). We’ve torn the novel apart several times. We sit down to write it one more time. What do we do? Well, now we know the plot, we’ve plotted it out verbally, and we go through and write note cards for each scene we know we have. The MC of the scene, the setting, and the stuff that must happen. Then we organized the cards into an outline. We looked for gaps, we filled in gaps, and we divided them up and started writing.

    The organic process was in each scene–we had goals for the scenes, but they changed a lot in the writing, and as we wrote sometimes later events changed. New scenes were needed, some got cut or combined. The result? A much better first draft.

    That’s pretty much how I did my own WIP, too, but with no notecards, just an outline. As I wrote scenes, stuff changed, and so I changed my outline. Then I finished it, and then I went back and attacked the baggy monster (because even with the plotting it was baggy!) and am hacking it into shape.

    I’m very linear. I write the story from beginning to end. I’m impressed with people who can hop around their story and write this scene from the first third, and then that scene in the last half, etc. I just can’t do it. Even if I’ve got the outline plotted out.

  • David,
    thanks. I guess it depends on your background and personality which end of the spectrum you tend to start at! I think that, as I suggested, my interest in sentence-level writing fed by my academic literary background drove my sense that novels happened at teh level of word and phrase and it took some time for me to start thinking in terms of larger structure, pacing etc. That set me back a ways and maybe I’m over ocrrecting a little in the plotting phase now, but yes, as Struart says, we have to find the point in the spectru,m that works best for the way we work.

    I’m also a little unsure of what I am, though (as I say) I know I’ve shifted steadily towards plotting over the years. But I think you’re right that “plotting” doesn’t mean (or needn’t mean) a meticulous outlining of everything. I still need that certain mystery and excitement that comes from elements of the story not being clear to me when I set out, but this is small potatoes compared to where I started out, and perhaps I should have spend more time breaking down what I was doing wrong in my pantsing! There were times when my books weren’t even generically clear, or didn’t figure out what kinds of stories they were telling till they well underway. Not good.

    I think you’re right that not having a clear sense of what the sytory is works against you finishing it, if only because you don’t have a sense of progress beyond word count. I need to be able to see key moments coming over the horizon so that I can work towards and through them, and the book can have the kind of unified closure which I think is almost impossible if you don’t have some sense of purpose in advance.

    I also feel that my “organic” work is still happening within scenes. It really helps to know where the larger narrative is going, what needs to happen in the scene, but that doesn’t hamper my creativity in writing that moment or prevent OTHER things developing in teh same scene which I didn’t plan, esp the nuance stuff which gives life and texture to characters and their world.

  • Hi A.J. Glad I finally clicked on one of your links to this blog. Looks like a great site!

    I am definitely a plotter for my longer works, since I usually work backwards with a mystery. But recently I wrote a short “super-villain” story that was completely off the cuff, and it was a wonderful experience. I had one plot twist in mind and ended up with two more as I went along. Very fun!

    Like others have said, I usually have the plot points mapped out, but the discovery process is still present with the characters more than anything. I love exploring characters and their motivations while ‘in the trenches.’

  • Mikaela

    …. Oh good! I am not the only one that have made this mistake :D. I have tried to just run with the story, but I can’t. I need to have some sort outline. One day I might even go back and finish Shaman Princess. I like the story. A lot.

  • Unicorn

    I used to be a most awful pantser. Then I started outlining things in my head. I’m not sure now if I count as more plotter or more pantser, since I only ever outline things on paper (perhaps only a half or a third of the story) when my thoughts seem scrambled and I need to pull them together. Even then I don’t stay very true to the outline; when the story wants to go elsewhere, I let it. Still, I try to maintain structure in the story, and keep it all pushing towards the end. The majority of my outlining, I do in my head.
    I like these “Getting it Wrong” posts. They wouldn’t have been as effective if their writer wasn’t now Getting it Right.

  • P.G.
    Nice to see you over here, man. I think you are right that it’s different with short stories (Stuart might want to chime in on this too), if only because large scale revision of a short piece is more manageable than overhauling 400 pages (though not necessarily easier). Anything short can come more directly straight from your head, I suspect: I often write scenes quickly having composed chunks of dialogue and phrasing while walking the dog or something! But longer stuff, for me at least, needs planning.

    no, you’re not the only one. I suspect this is one of the perennial topics on writer sites!

    sweet of you to say so. (Mom, is that you?) 🙂 I wouldn’t worry about being purely neither one thing nor the other, in fact like most of the respondents, I think that’s the desirable place to be!

  • Sarah

    I have a very similar evolution as a writer – I thought being a pantser was the way “real” artists did it. I thought that plotting took the joy out of writing. I’m ashamed to say I associated plotting with selling out. Boy was I wrong.

    However, I like PGs’ point about short stories being different than novels and I tend to agree, but I did recently have a good experience applying plotting to short story writing. I started my story in my usual burst of enthusiasm, but before I wrote more than one scene I pulled myself up short and said, “Self, how will you know this story is done? How are you going to keep it a short story, not a novela?” (I was nfluenced in part by Stuart’s post on scope – I have problems with scope.) I realized that if I conceived of the short story as a three act play with a clear beginning act, middle act, and final act, I could keep it short and on topic. It worked! I wouldn’t say this new story is perfect, but it’s tight – much tighter than my short stories usually are. Next time I write a short story I will try the same framework. Anyone else write short stories like this? What works for you?

  • Sarah,
    there’s a point in almost every piece of writing I do be it a novel or a scholarly article or an MW posting where I have to stop and either metaphorically or literally open a new document that says “What the Hell is this [article/novel/post/whatever] about?” No matter how short the piece, I agree that there’s a place for thinking about form, direction and (perhaps most crucially) purpose: what am I trying to achieve here? Once that has been ascertained, I can then move on to figuring out the best way of moving forward.

  • Brilliant, AJ. It IS a spectrum, not an all-or-nothing black-and-white deal. So often people get caught up in defending their plotting or their pantsing that they can’t appreciate the need to slide a little to one end of the spectrum or the other. Beautifully said.

  • Thanks Ed. Much appreciated.

  • Young_Writer

    My middle ground changes depending on how complicated the novel is. Sometimes I plot every scene and use of three pages for a chacter sketch. Sometimes I’ll just sit and write. Both failed. Epically. Thankfully I found a middle ground. The other novels are hard to look at. Like Faith’s muse 😉